The new novel from Edmonton poet and author Tim Bowling may start out below the 49th parallel. It may even spend a majority of its pages there, digging into the gruesomeness of the Battle of Antietam—said to be the single bloodiest day in the U.S. Civil War—and the larger psychic damage done by ever having condoned slavery in the first place. But the most interesting sections of The Tinsmith, which take place later, during a turf war amongst the upstart salmon canneries in frontier-era British Columbia, give it a heart that’s undeniably Canadian.
We open during the battle itself. It’s September 17, 1862, at a normally peaceful creek down in Maryland. Union surgeon Anson Baird is running himself ragged trying to deal with the never-ending scores of wounded that are being brought to his makeshift hospital. For most of his patients, there’s not much to do but apply chloroform and start then amputating. Still, the work is maddening—which is why Baird takes special notice when a mysterious soldier named John appears on the scene and helps the surgeon out in the operating room.
It turns out there’s a very good reason John keeps to himself, and it has an awful lot to do with his skin colour, which is nearly white but not completely. Anson figures it out on his own, but quietly (and privately). Bowling, on the other hand, uses the first half of the book to cycle through various perspectives on the battlefield, from photographers to soldiers to civilians, before finally letting the reader in on the truth as the fighting comes to a close. Select flashbacks to John’s life before joining the army are among the book’s most powerful.
From there, the novel jumps 20 years into the future, up to Canada and the mouth of the salmon-flooded Fraser River. John supposedly lives here now, and has just sent a cryptic telegram to his old friend asking for help. Quickly. Anson agrees, and it’s not long before he realizes that John’s troubled past has finally caught up with him.
You can probably tell I’m tip-toeing around a few key details, and that’s not an accident. The Tinsmith draws its early energy from a slow and careful reveal of John’s biography, and considering how rigid and staid a setting the Civil War can be, where entire scenes feel pre-sculpted in wax, it’d be doing a disservice to go into too much detail here.
Instead, let me focus on the parts set in B.C., and praise Bowling for injecting one corner of our nation with a little ragged Deadwood flavour. Lee Henderson did something similar for the timber industry in The Man Game, and while The Tinsmith is nowhere near as audacious or freewheeling as that novel, there’s nonetheless something wonderful about the way these ruthless cannery owners give a little added mythological heft to Canada’s west coast.
One of them goes so far as to tell Anson that the Civil War itself is less impressive than the fledgling town of New Westminster. “And what do you know of danger, exactly?” he says, to a man, remember, who watched 23,000 of his fellow American get murdered in a single day. “The east’s a settled land. Many things that are commonplace here will appear dangerous to you, doctor.”
It’s not clear whether we’re actually meant to believe him or not, but for a minute there, I really, really wanted to.
Brindle & Glass, 320 pp, $21.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 1, 2012)